The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play the Seattle Seahawks this week, so we talked to Kenneth Arthur of Field Gulls about Sunday’s game.
1) In previous years, the Seahawks always seemed to lean on the running game. But this year that production is kind of lacking, with just 851 rushing yards and a measly 3.5 yards per carry. How have they coped?
Well, for the majority of the season they haven't had their only two good running backs: Thomas Rawls and CJ Prosise. They were rolling with Christine Michael, who is a very underwhelming player even if he's an amazing athlete. Coaches were not fond of him and it showed after four or five starts, leading to his quick release once Rawls was healthy again a couple weeks ago. With Rawls at 100% on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Seahawks rushed for a season-high 152 yards. The bad news: Prosise broke a bone on a 72-yard touchdown run and will be out another six weeks or so. If Prosise was healthy, I'd tell you that Seattle's run game is unstoppable. With Rawls, Alex Collins, and George Farmer, I'll tell you that it's above average. Rawls is really, really, really good. People have slept on him believing it's a "system" but I think he's proven that he's more than a system and that he's much better than Michael.
Last season, Rawls had two games in which he rushed for more yards than Marshawn Lynch had in a game over his entire career, just as another example of that.
Overall, the Seahawks have coped as well as we can hope. They're 21st in rush offense DVOA, a little better than their ranks in total rushing yards and yards per carry. Some other improvements for the run game since the first two months of the season: Left tackle George Fant, right guard Germain Ifedi (missed the first few weeks), center Justin Britt (transitioning to a new position is really rolling now), the health of Russell Wilson. He had two pretty significant leg injuries in the beginning of the year. He kept playing but has not been able to contribute much to the run game. Against the Eagles he was clearly at his full self, he's really hard to sack (lowest sack percentage of his career this season) and he's able to move it up field with his legs a bit now. I'd also say that the Seahawks have coped by making Wilson, Jimmy Graham, and Doug Baldwin the centerpieces of the offense, and they're getting really dangerous at passing the football. They already were, but it's a little bit more laser accurate this season.
2) If you ran the Bucs, how would you attack Seattle's defense? And how would you defend against Russell Wilson and company?
The first thing I would do if I ran the Bucs is embezzle millions of dollars into my account and quit and move to Barbados.
But in the case of football, that's an interesting question. I mean, most NFL coaches don't know how to attack Seattle's defense ... luckily, I'm smarter than most NFL coaches. I'm actually a football genius, it's pretty great. First of all, I think a red herring is their third down defense problems. A lot of Seahawks fans are frustrated by them not being able to get off the field on third downs recently. I mean, so am I. It really sucks. But regardless of how bad they are on third down, this is the number one scoring defense in the NFL. They're doing pretty good. I think you have to keep pushing it to Mike Evans and let Evans beat Seattle. Even if Richard Sherman is trailing him, you're gonna get chunks of yardage by going to Evans. He's too good and it's too difficult for Sherman to stop him every time what with so many rules made to allow passes to be completed. Sherman is still amazing (don't believe the hype that he's not) but you can't stop Evans. We already know that the Seahawks can probably stop every other Tampa Bay weapon this year (no offense?) so Jameis Winston-to-Evans is gonna be the bread and butter. There won't be much in the rushing game from the Bucs this week, I don't think, and so with DeShawn Shead and Earl Thomas probably missing this contest, I'd go hard with the Evans gameplan and make Seattle pissed off about it every time. Corner Jeremy Lane is decent but struggling a bit this season after signing a new contract. Backups Steven Terrell and Neiko Thorpe could be starting at safety and corner. Cameron Brate might get some love there, but just Evans. Evans Evans Evans. That's the best bet.
As for the other way around ...
Look, if the Bucs can force a turnover, God bless them. The Hawks have turned it over one time in their last seven games. Wilson is not giving up the football. He's got two interceptions on the season. They've got Wilson, Rawls, Baldwin, Graham, and Tyler Lockett really rolling right now. I'm so bummed about Prosise. I'm probably too in love with these guys to tell you how to stop them -- I must have a short memory because they scored 12 against the Dolphins, 3 against the Rams, and 6 against the Cardinals in five quarters. These last three weeks though they've been on fire. Wilson has the highest passer rating in November/December/January in NFL history. This is his favorite time of year. Basically: If you can stop the explosive passing plays, you can throw Pete Carroll off of his gameplan. They are either first or second in pass plays longer than 15 yards this season. Wilson will heave it 4 or 5 times on Sunday, and it seems like he usually connects on 80% of those with Baldwin, Graham, or Lockett. The only thing we hate to see is passes to Jermaine Kearse, and sadly he seems to get a lot of those, especially in the red zone. Wilson is probably completing 85% of his passes to those other players over the last three weeks. Get someone to cover Graham and Baldwin efficiently though and then Wilson will be off his game.
3) Can you name one player we haven't heard of, but who will play a prominent role on Sunday?
You've definitely never heard of George Farmer. Most Seahawks fans haven't either.
After Prosise and other backup Troymaine Pope (who was making his Seattle debut on Sunday) were both injured this week, the team had to sign Farmer from the practice squad to be their third down back. He was the number one WR recruit in the nation in 2011 and signed with USC but injuries (including a bad spider bite) derailed his entire career. This is a guy who was high school teammates with Paul Richardson, Robert Woods, and Marqise Lee and was considered a better wide receiver than all of them. (Who wouldn't want to go back and watch that game tape?) He went undrafted and was converted to running back. Then a year or two ago, Carroll converted him to cornerback. Then this summer, he converted him to running back. Now he's going to be playing RB and maybe getting a couple carries, just a few months after he hadn't really played the position in years and was mostly a WR growing up, then a CB for the last two years. It's not that unusual for Carroll though: WR Tanner McEvoy was a QB/Safety/WR in college. RT Garry Gilliam was a TE in college. C Justin Britt was a T as a rookie and a G last season. LT George Fant was a college basketball player who didn't start playing football until a year ago. He can't take credit for Jimmy Graham, but he was a college basketball player. Richard Sherman started his college career as a WR. Russell Wilson played minor league baseball. Prosise was a college WR. Kam Chancellor started his college career as a QB. Carroll loves athletes and versatility and that's what Farmer, and a lot of these other guys, are. Will he play a prominent role? Maybe. He should get some important third down snaps.
I think Neiko Thorpe will make his first start after the injury to Shead. I can't say much about him other than he's a wonderful special teams player. He's out of Auburn and bounced around the league and the CFL and we'll see if he has a future as a starter on defense. Terrell takes over for Thomas and gets his first career start. All I can say is the team has held onto him since 2014 and he's not even a huge special teams standout but he has the same 40-time as Thomas (4.35) and the Seahawks seem to really like him.
I'd also point to Fant, rookie fifth round running back Alex Collins out of Arkansas, defensive tackle Jarran Reed, defensive end Frank Clark, and special teams standout/defensive end Cassius Marsh.
4) The Seahawks have dealt with a lot of injuries this season, and are set to face a couple new ones this week, most notably to Earl Thomas. And yet, they're 7-2-1. Can you explain how they've managed to be a winning team despite all those injuries?
It's amazing to me too. Look this is a deep, deep roster. They've had a lot of injuries but Cliff Avril leads the NFL in sacks. Clark has 7.5 in nine games. Bobby Wagner is in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. KJ Wright is a top-three OLB in the 4-3 system. Sherman is a shutdown corner. Thomas is only now injured for the first time. Wilson is an amazing player (this is the key). Baldwin is the best slot corner in the NFL. Jimmy Graham is more productive than Rob Gronkowski this season. Lockett is an All-Pro kick returner. They're the only team in the NFL that is top 10 in both offense and defense for DVOA, and they're 15th on special teams. The Eagles have a great special teams and defense but the offense is bad. The Cowboys have the number one offense but their defense is bad. Same with the Falcons. Same with the Patriots. The only teams that come close to being as balanced are the Dolphins and Steelers, but they're just not as good overall. (Surprisingly, Miami is quite close.) They've beaten four teams in the top six of DVOA, which obviously doesn't include themselves, so the only team in the top six that they haven't beaten yet is Dallas.
Pete Carroll's philosophies about competition and winning clearly work. This team has been right around the top for five years in a row. They've lead the NFL in scoring defense every season since 2012 and they're doing it again. They've been number one in DVOA since 2012 and they're doing it again. I'd like to say it's all "schematic" and all about the system and everything but look at the players who have missed zero or one games; this is a deep, deep roster and they've won because they're talented. We'll see how long they can keep this many great players together, I'm just enjoying it while it lasts.
5) Can you give us a prediction for Sunday's game?
Gonna be a really tough game. Without Thomas and Shead and Michael Bennett, the defense is vulnerable for the first time in years. We haven't had a game without Earl Thomas since 2009. Seattle must travel across the country and try to stop Winston and Evans, and that'll be a tall order. I think they only get away with it because of Russell Wilson and his chemistry right now with Baldwin and Graham. I think that's enough to put the Seahawks over the top this week and win 28-19.